News-Leader Year In Review: July-December

A look back at some of the top stories of the past year

Posted 1/6/22

Take a look back at some of the top 2021 stories in the Rochelle News-Leader from July through December!

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News-Leader Year In Review: July-December

A look back at some of the top stories of the past year



Sunday, July 4

ROCHELLE — Gov. JB Pritzker visited the ‘Hub City’ on Thursday afternoon. 

Pritzker was in town visiting Kennay Farms Distilling with a film crew in tow. He recognized the distillery for its work early in the COVID-19 pandemic when it adapted to making hand sanitizer rather than spirits. A member of Pritzker’s video team reached out to Kennay Farms Owner Rick Kennay and asked in the days before to set up a tour and interview, Aubrey Quinn, in charge of marketing at the distillery, said. 

“It was a pretty cool experience,” Quinn said. “We were pleased they picked us out. We felt pretty special. It was cool to meet them. They were shooting video for four hours. They wanted to see products bottled. We bottled a single barrel whiskey. They filmed shots around the tasting room and we walked across the street to eat lunch. It was casual. We talked about the transition that we made last year.”

Wednesday, July 21

ROCHELLE — The Rochelle Area Community Foundation celebrated its 15th anniversary of operation in its 16th year on Monday with a golf outing at Fairways Golf Course. 

The event, originally scheduled for last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, had to wait a year. 72 golfers took to the course that had tables with representatives from community nonprofits represented. 

"On behalf of the foundation, we thank everyone for their participation,” RACF Board Vice President Dennis Berg said. “We were going to have one last year, but we had to postpone it. As you're playing, there's 10 nonprofits out there. Make sure you engage with them and thank them for what they do. Without them, we don't have the community we have. We appreciate all the work they do."

Sunday, July 25

ROCHELLE — Rochelle Area Chamber of Commerce Director Tricia Herrera said this week that workforce shortage issues have been seen “across the board” in local business sectors. 

The workforce shortage is nationwide and Rochelle Mayor John Bearrows recently told the News-Leader that there are currently 300 open jobs in town. Herrera said businesses big and small have seen the impacts, namely the industrial, food service and retail sectors. 

“Our industrial businesses are offering large bonuses and still can’t staff,” Herrera said. “It is concerning. We want places to stay in business and be productive and profit. What will happen if they can’t staff? Will some have to consolidate? Will some have to close their doors?”

Wednesday, July 28

ROCHELLE ⏤ Mike Myers has been in the car and automotive industry all his life.

And he says he’s never seen a situation like the industry is in now. COVID-19 created a chip shortage in auto manufacturing that has slowed new car production. At the beginning of the pandemic, demand slowed before speeding back up. Now there’s “pent-up” demand with a shortage of new cars on the market. 

“Demand is so high and you can't get the new cars, so it's just driven the market crazy,” Myers, the general manager of Jeff Perry Chevrolet Buick Cadillac in Rochelle, said. “We have to sell what we have or sell used cars. And that's driven up the price of used cars. The factory has reduced some of the rebates on new cars, so the price of new is up, the price of used is up. It's just a shortage of cars. All created by COVID-19."


Sunday, Aug. 1

ROCHELLE ⏤ The board of trustees at Rochelle Community Hospital announced a new partnership with the Flagg-Rochelle Community Park District in support of the new REC Center this week. 

RCH committed $400,000 to a 20-year marketing sponsorship at The REC, which will be paid out to the park district over a period of seven years. The hospital will be the sole and exclusive healthcare provider advertising at The REC. 

“RCH always strives to improve the health of our community and this partnership with the REC Center will support healthier lives throughout Rochelle,” a press release said.

Wednesday, Aug. 4

ROCHELLE ⏤ The Flip Flops and Blood Drops blood drive collected 62 units of blood during its operation Monday at the REC in Rochelle, exceeding its goal of 50.  

The drive is in honor of twin sisters Lana and Ellie Troha, who were born prematurely, weighing just over one pound each. 

While in the hospital, both girls received blood transfusions. Sadly, Ellie passed away at five days old. Her sister, Lana, received eight units of blood within the first five months of her life. 

For the past four years, Lana’s parents, Gabrielle and Derek, Rochelle natives, have partnered with the American Red Cross to host a blood drive in honor of her life and in memory of Ellie. 

“That's a possible 186 lives saved,” Gabrielle said of Monday’s 62 units. “It went really well. It was steady and we had all the appointments come in. It was a great turnout. It makes me feel incredibly proud and happy."

ROCHELLE ⏤ Johnson Tractor recently publicly announced its move to its new location at 200 Steward Rd., which it’s been doing business in since July 6. It previously had a location at 1030 S. 7th St. in Rochelle. The new location is the company’s largest of its five retail locations across southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. 

The family-owned Case IH and Kubota dealer is planning a celebration to thank customers and team members for 41 years of successful business growth in the fall. The 50,000 square foot building offers customers an open layout with an expo room, a large showroom, a modern air-conditioned service center and parking on 12 acres with new and used inventory.

“The increase in the size and complexity of all modern equipment, be it a 36-row corn planter or a large zero turn lawn mower, drove us to improve our facility to keep up with the demands of our customers, suppliers, and employees,” Johnson said. “Rochelle is a key market for us, and we appreciate the support you have given our dealership for the past 16 years.”

Sunday, Aug. 8

ROCHELLE ⏤ The Rochelle Police Department hosted its National Night Out event on Tuesday night at Atwood Park. 

The event featured police and fire demonstrations, a helicopter landing, a ballet folklorico presentation, games, giveaways, music and free hot dogs. Similar events are celebrated by local police departments all across the country on the first Tuesday in August. 

Attendees watched the fire department use some of its life-saving tools on a car and the police department did both a taser and K9 demonstration. Rochelle Police Chief Eric Higby said the night gives officers the chance to interact with people outside of the scope in which they normally would. 

“We're dressed differently, it gives people an opportunity to look at our equipment and do things like see the dog take a bite,” Higby said. “A lot of times people ask us questions one-on-one and we're able to answer them. Because we're not on a call, we don't have a call waiting. It just gives us an opportunity to talk to people in a different environment."

Wednesday, Aug. 11

ROCHELLE — At its Tuesday meeting, the Rochelle Elementary District approved a school reopening plan unanimously that included a mask mandate, adhering to Gov. JB Pritzker’s executive order last week. 

Superintendent Jason Harper recommended last week and at the meeting that the board follow the mask mandate due to risk of increased liability, loss of insurance coverage, loss of recognition as a public school and loss of school funding.

Both the elementary and Rochelle Township High School districts previously approved a plan with masks optional in recent weeks before Pritzker’s executive order.

Sunday, Aug. 15

ROCHELLE — Zech VanVickle was recently hired full-time by the Rochelle Fire Department as a firefighter/paramedic and started on Thursday. He’s the department’s 13th full-time firefighter and the move was made due to the department absorbing “quite a bit” of overtime recently, Rochelle Fire Chief Dave Sawlsville said. 

The department had 12 firefighters, not counting Sawlsville, for the past 15 years. The number of calls goes up every year, Sawlsville said. The number of EMS calls has continuously risen for 20 years. Fire calls have trended down and leveled off “a bit,” Sawlsville said. 

VanVickle is a Rochelle native and started working with the department part-time in 2018. He’s been on Ogle-Lee Fire since 2016 and has worked closely with Rochelle Fire over that time. 

"It was a long-term goal of mine to work here,” VanVickle said. “It's nice to be able to work in a full-time capacity with everyone. I like the EMS side. It's a passion of mine, being able to help people with medical issues. And obviously firefighting is a big part of our job, being safe about it and helping conserve property."

Wednesday, Aug. 18

ROCHELLE — The Rochelle Township High School Board of Education approved a school reopening plan that adheres to the Gov. JB Pritzker’s mask mandate by a vote of 6-0 at its Monday meeting. 

Similar to the past few high school and elementary district board meetings, members of the community voiced their thoughts against masks in school and urged board members to go against the state mandate and make masks optional in schools. The board previously opted for a mask optional approach before the governor’s mandate. 

High School Board President Tom Huddleston spoke to those in attendance at Monday’s meeting and said the governor’s executive order is a law in the board’s eyes that it has to abide by. 

“At the last meeting we completely agreed with you that masks should be optional,” Huddleston said. “At that time it was a recommendation from the governor. The executive order took away our discretion. It requires us to abide by it with very many significant risks if we don't.”

MT. MORRIS — Rochelle’s Danica and Mark Rogers have entered the U.S. National Straw Sculpting Competition in Mt. Morris that runs from Aug. 13-29. 

The competition is in its sixth year of operation and was in Rochelle for its first year. It’s been in downtown Mt. Morris on the historic campus since. 

Mark and Danica started entering the competition in its first year in Rochelle after encouragement by local sculptor Fran Volz and have been a part of it ever since. 

Their first entry was a 1970s troll doll. Then Danica and her cousin made King Kong and the Headless Horseman. And then it was the Ghostbusters Stay Puft Marshmallow man.

“I enjoy the art work,” Mark said. “And it’s time to spend with Danica. A big portion of it is bonding.”

This year’s entry by Danica and Mark is “The Child” from “The Mandalorian,'' a Star Wars show on Disney+. The character is widely known as “Baby Yoda.”

“We wanted to do something simple,” Danica said. “My niece is obsessed with him.

Sunday, Aug. 22

ROCHELLE — Rochelle city officials held a groundbreaking ceremony Friday and announced that Starbucks will be building and opening a location in town on Illinois Route 251 next to Walgreens. 

The location will feature a 2,000 square foot store with indoor and outdoor seating and a drive-thru. It is planned to open in spring 2022. It will employ about 25-30 people and it has created 75-80 construction jobs. The city first began speaking with Starbucks in January, City Community Development Director Michelle Pease said. 

"This is quite an exciting announcement,” Mayor John Bearrows said. “Starbucks is a major nationwide chain. Many months ago when we started talking about this, I spoke with Michelle and we talked about what could happen. I thought if we could land a Starbucks, that could be amazing in Rochelle. And now we know it's not only in Rochelle, but it's the only one in Ogle County.”

ROCHELLE — Summer Country Jam will return to Rochelle in 2022, Rochelle Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tricia Herrera said. 

The event previously took place at Rochelle Municipal Airport for five years up until 2017. It was not held in the two years after that. Herrera said the board wanted to hold the event last year before the COVID-19 pandemic came into play. 

“It is coming back in 2022,” Herrera said. “We’ve already started planning it. Planning is very preliminary right now. The chamber board has already voted on it and approved it. The community wants it back. The community has asked about doing it again. It was great for five years.”

Wednesday, Aug. 25

ROCHELLE — Before he passed away in December, Todd Smith gave the Rochelle Township High School football coaches Under Armour shirts to wear under their polos during games. 

“Last spring, I wore it every game,” RTHS Football Coach and Teacher Brian Worthington said. “I intend to wear it every game until I retire. Because every Friday night, he's one of the things I want to think about.”

Worthington spoke those words during a tree dedication in Smith’s honor on Friday at the school. Smith’s family and football players and coaches gathered to honor the late photographer and booster club president. 

The tree was planted on Purple Pass on May 17. RTHS Athletic Director Rich Harvey said Smith wore many hats at RTHS and photographed dances, musicals, sports, assemblies and more.

Sunday, Aug. 29

ROCHELLE — Gov. JB Pritzker announced at a Thursday news conference that masks will be required indoors statewide regardless of vaccination status beginning Monday amid the ongoing surge in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Pritzker also announced that employees in schools and healthcare settings will be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine starting Sept. 5. Those who are unwilling or unable will be required to get tested for COVID-19 at least once a week. 

Rochelle Mayor John Bearrows and Ogle County Health Department Public Administrator Kyle Auman took to Facebook Thursday in a video reacting to the changes. 

“We must slow down and stop this spread,” Bearrows said. “This mask mandate worked before. As your mayor, I’m asking you to pitch in and make this work again. It’s not the end of the world. This is something we have to do for eachother.”


Wednesday, Sept. 1

ROCHELLE — On Aug. 28, the park district held a grand celebration for The REC Center after it opened Dec. 1, 2020. The celebration was put off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The $14 million facility includes a four-court gymnasium, indoor turf, a fitness center, multi-purpose rooms, an indoor walking track and an aquatic center with two pools. 

"I wanted to say welcome to everyone who has come to this incredible investment in Rochelle's future,” park district Executive Director Jackee Ohlinger said. “The REC Center is something that wasn't accomplished over the past two or three years. It's something we've been working on with past boards, staff, community members and I want to say thank you to everyone who was involved in that.”

The grand celebration included raffles, contests, giveaways, activities and a one-day membership sale.

Wednesday, Sept. 8

ROCHELLE — When Elise Rexroat started working at Starbucks Store 319 in Edmonds, Washington as a barista in 1992, the company had about 100 stores. 

On Thursday, she celebrated her 29th anniversary as a Starbucks employee. Her job title is now total pay operations analyst lead. Today Starbucks operates over 33,000 stores globally and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Rexroat, whose maiden name is Brass, was born and raised in Rochelle and graduated from Rochelle Township High School in 1986. 

"I'm so blessed and grateful,” Rexroat said, “It's humbling. I've seen a lot of change and growth in the company and I’m so happy to have been a part of it all. It's such a great company to work for."

STEWARD — The Steward School District hired a new superintendent over the summer. 

Steven Simpson joined the district after working in the Indian Creek School district for 32 years, most recently as principal of Indian Creek Middle School. A Steward school board member made him aware of the opening.  

“I knew of Steward and the very good reputation they had here and found everyone here to be extremely welcoming and accommodating,” Simpson said. “They struck me as a good group of people to work with. I had very deep roots in my other district and was not in a hurry to leave. But I just found the opportunity here so inviting that I became immediately excited about the idea of coming here."

Sunday, Sept. 19

ROCHELLE — Every time somebody was hired at the Rochelle Community of Opportunity Hiring Expo on Thursday, a bell rang. 

The in-person city-wide event at Rochelle Township High School featured over 43 commercial, retail, non-profit, healthcare, industrial and staffing companies offering full-time, part-time and seasonal work. Some offered signing bonuses, employee referral rewards and other incentives to separate themselves from other employers.

The event was sponsored by the City of Rochelle, the Office of Mayor John Bearrows, Kishwaukee College, RTHS, Rochelle Foods – Hormel, 102.3 The Coyote and Superhits 93.5. 

The event was born out of a workforce shortage locally and nationally due to a multitude of reasons including the rise of people working remotely, higher wage demands, COVID-19, additional domestic responsibilities and the leverage of workers considering changing jobs.

BYRON – The familiar sight of steam rising from the Byron Generating Station continues, although it is down to rising from one tower as the station refuels.

With Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signing a new energy bill that was favorable to nuclear plants into law on Sept. 15, the Byron Station will continue to operate. It’s owner, Exelon Generation, had threatened to close the station on Sept. 13 without the new bill.

The bill will also keep Prairie State Energy Campus, which the City of Rochelle has $150 million in debt with until 2042, open until at least 2038.

Sunday, Sept. 26

ROCHELLE — Chef Amadeus spent his week in Rochelle eating at local restaurants like The Rack, Sunrise Family Restaurant and The Iron Skillet. 

The professional chef and former winner of The Food Network’s “Extreme Chef: Mexican Show-down” was in town to cook at the Cooks & Carpenters fundraiser at The Kitchen Table with Habitat For Humanity of Ogle County. He also helped with The Kitchen Table’s usual Tuesday and Thursday dinners.


Wednesday, Oct. 20

ROCHELLE – A ribbon cutting and grand opening ceremony were held Saturday morning at The Spark Shop, Rochelle’s new retail incubator for local small business owners. 

The Spark Shop is housed in the historic filling station building downtown. It’s for businesses that are currently home-based but are looking to someday have their own brick and mortar location. About 10-12 vendors will be in the space at a time selling merchandise on a quarterly basis. The idea was put together by the Rochelle Chamber of Commerce, Rochelle Retail Advisory Board and the City of Rochelle. 

“We love a good collaboration at the chamber,” Chamber Executive Director Tricia Herrera said. “This project certainly is that. The idea came about three years ago. It was pre-COVID-19. The Retail Advisory Board had an idea since we always get asked what Rochelle needs more of. Retail is always the first thing that people tell us. So, they came with this idea.”

Sunday, Oct. 31

ROCHELLE — The City of Rochelle hosted a graduation ceremony Thursday for the participants of its inaugural Citizens Academy program. 

The 10-week program offered the opportunity for residents to learn about the city and its various departments. Participants went behind the scenes to learn how the city works through hands-on activities, facility tours and more.

“I'm very happy we did this,” Mayor John Bearrows said. “This process was for people who wondered about the city. For a city of 10,000 people with a $95 million budget, this is a huge machine.”

City officials said they plan to offer another Citizens Academy program in the future after the success of the first one.


Sunday, Nov. 14

ROCHELLE — The Hub City Senior Center partnered with ProMedica Hospice Wednesday to host a Veterans Day celebration to honor and recognize local veterans. 

The event included a brief ceremony followed by a pin and certificate presentation. 

“On behalf of myself and our team at the senior center, we just want to thank you for joining us in this celebration to honor our veterans,” HCSC Executive Director Diana King said. “Words cannot express the gratitude we have for each and every one of you for your service. Thank you so much."

Sunday, Nov. 21

ROCHELLE — Thirty years went by faster than Seadin Ajvazi anticipated.

The owner of Sunrise Family Restaurant celebrated being open for 30 years in Rochelle on Thursday with family, employees and customers. Free coffee and desert were offered the entire day. 

“It's just kind of crazy,” Ajvazi said of the milestone. “I just want to thank everybody that's supported us up until now. We've got good support from the community and our customers. From the beginning until now, it's been good. I hope people continue to support us. Our customers have been great.”

Ajvazi runs the restaurant alongside his wife, Mida, and children, Sead, Bika and Besim.


Wednesday, Dec. 15

ROCHELLE — The Rochelle City Council unanimously approved a $361,900 bid for the demolition of the Hickory Grove facility at 1127 N. 7th St. at its Monday meeting. 

City Engineer Sam Tesreau said McDonagh Demolition will take 60 days to complete the project and his guess is that it would start in late January. The demolition would end in April. It will consist of the complete removal of all above grade structures and below grade foundations where applicable, a portion of the existing pavement, outside pool area and final restoration and seeding of the disturbed area.

The city assumed ownership of the deteriorating building in early 2020 for $1 with the intention of demolishing it and developing the property. It has worked on the demolition project for a year to develop an agreement with the Comfort Inn next door to establish cross access easements, property acquisition, plating, façade improvements on the south side of the hotel after disconnection of the Hickory Grove facility and other general project specifications. 

The bid approved by the council was approximately 35 percent lower than the estimated cost of $575,000. The project will be funded by a Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Rebuild Illinois grant reimbursement up to $365,750.

Sunday, Dec. 19

ROCHELLE — Rochelle Fire Department Chief Dave Sawlsville was called last Friday night to help with response efforts after an EF3 tornado struck an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, killing six and causing multiple injuries. 

Sawlsville is part of an incident management assistance team for large-scale events that are going to last over a period of days. Officials like him are called to help relieve local command team members that have worked long hours. 

“I was called and asked if I could go at 10 p.m. on Friday night,” Sawlsville said. “I said absolutely. I went down with three other guys to try and support the fire chief and his command structure. They do the first response. We don't go and take over the scene. We're just there to help with anything they need.”

Wednesday, Dec. 22

ROCHELLE — Rochelle City Manager Jeff Fiegenschuh said last week that work is ongoing to set up a 501c3 nonprofit and a board has been assembled in efforts to bring a daycare back to town after Kishwaukee Family YMCA Child Care Center at 1010 N. 15th St. closed last year.

The full board is ready to go and information is being submitted to the Secretary of State’s office to establish the 501c3. That board will be in charge of raising funds and making future decisions for a daycare. The City of Rochelle will have no more involvement with the project after leading the way in recent months to facilitate a daycare. 

“The board is a broad swath of folks from the community,” Fiegenschuh said. “I know there's a couple of city folks on there, but they're not there as representatives of the city. They are because they have kids and they have an interest."